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And now this - Americans have something to say about proposed rules for investigating campus sexual assault. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos offered the change. She wants to overturn rules from the Obama administration in a way that she says would better protect the accused. The rule-making process typically involves an invitation for public comment, which is why the administration now has some homework - about 100,000 public remarks to read. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: While many comments praise the new rules for restoring sanity and fairness to the process, many more are critical. They range from short expletives and insults aimed at DeVos to horrific accounts of sexual assaults and pleas to not return campuses to the bad old days when incidents were swept under the rug. Activists have been mobilizing their troops with a social media blitz, comment-writing pizza parties and college events.
SAGE CARSON: I'm wondering, are you all going to hear me OK? I'm, like, trying to assess the room virtually.
CARSON: So if...
SMITH: Sage Carson with the survivor advocacy group Know Your IX video conferences with Boston University students for a kind of crash course in commenting.
CARSON: What this is is it's pretty much, like, a short persuasive essay in which you say why you support or oppose what they want to do to Title IX.
SMITH: She points students to a website, Hands Off IX, that allows for easier commenting with a Mad Libs kind of template and then forwards the entry to the Department of Education.
CARSON: So you'll go in. And it will say like - hi,; my name is blah-da-blah (ph), and I am blank. That could be - I'm a student, I'm a student-survivor, I am a...
SMITH: Students then pick from a list of concerns - for example, the proposed rule that schools don't automatically have to investigate incidents in off-campus apartments or reports made, say, to a coach. And then there's data students can pick to bolster their case.
CARSON: It takes about five to 10 minutes is what we've heard from people. It's super simple. And it's like this can have real-world implications.
BLAIRE THOMAS: OK. So this, like, gives you an outline. OK. Do I have to use these sentence starters? Or...
SMITH: After the meeting, sophomores Blaire Thomas and Julia Mullert both decide to write about the off-campus exclusion.
JULIA MULLERT: I do live in off-campus housing. And the fact that, you know, you could be minutes away and that can change everything, that's really devastating. But you know, it also motivates you to want to push back against it and fight harder.
SMITH: Activists hope the sheer volume of comments will force the administration to pay attention. There's no official count of pros and cons. But even those who favor the new rules concede they're getting beat. Cynthia Garrett is co-president of FACE, a group representing those who say they were wrongly accused.
CYNTHIA GARRETT: We know we will never match the number of comments of victims' advocates. But I think the department is smart enough to understand that quality is more important than quantity.
SMITH: Garrett's been encouraging comments from accused students who say they were victims of an unfair system that left them kicked out of school with dashed prospects, ruined reputations and, in many cases, severe depression.
GARRETT: We have a kid who planned to paddle out on his surfboard with a concrete block. We have another one - the mother came home, opened the garage door. And the kid was standing on a stool with a rope in his hand. I mean, this is very devastating.
SMITH: Garrett says the new rules better protect the wrongly accused - for example, by allowing schools to demand more proof of wrongdoing, guaranteeing the right to cross-examine accusers and narrowing the definition of sexual harassment. Fighting these issues through agency regulations, once the domain of wonky lawyers, is something of a newer frontier in political activism, says Harvard Law professor Jacob Gersen.
JACOB GERSEN: Parties and activists have gotten good at this over the years. They recognize that the bureaucracy and the administration is actually where the power is. That's a much more effective place to spend your political energy.
SMITH: Success, however, is hardly a gimme. Past campaigns - for example, on net neutrality - failed to change policy. Survivor advocates maintain that comments created by templates are heartfelt and valid, and they're vowing a legal challenge if the department doesn't heed them. But Joe Cohn with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education says comment quantity should not drive policy.
JOE COHN: Constitutional rights aren't decided by a majority vote. Due process is not subject to the whims of the masses.
SMITH: Officials may take months to review the comments and respond. And it could be close to the 2020 election before they take effect, so that may be what ultimately decides the issue.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.